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“Smarter Summer” for Thousands of Hoosier Middle Schoolers

July 18, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS - It's not the summer school of yesteryear. It's more like a swanky private camp.

Thousands of low- to middle-income students in the Indianapolis area have been attending a Smarter Summers program designed to stop learning loss and provide fun at the same time with elective studies, music and field trips.

The focus, says Sarah Pitcock, director of the Smarter Summers Project at the National Summer Learning Association , is on children entering grades 6 through 9, a time she calls a unique window for learning opportunities.

"The habits and attitudes and abilities that young people have by ninth grade are highly indicative of the success that they'll have in college and careers."

Extensive research shows that unequal summer learning opportunities play a key role in the achievement gap between low- and middle-income children and those in families who can afford private programs, Pitcock says. Smarter Summers programs are being run in Indianapolis, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Diego, with a grant from the Walmart Foundation that provides more than 20,000 slots in high-quality summer learning programs.

Summer Advantage USA in Indianapolis is one of four summer programs chosen for the special funding because of its proven track record. Founder Earl Martin Phalen says programs need at least six hours a day with the students for five weeks to make a difference. The first half of the day is focused on academics, he says, and the afternoons tie those lessons into life skills.

"There's debate, learning science, learning math through cooking, there's soccer camps, physical education - those are some of the things that I think make it really fun for the scholars."

Thousands of his program's students spent Friday on campuses at Butler, Purdue, Notre Dame and Indiana universities to get a preview of college life.

Classes in the Smarter Summers programs are also much smaller than those in the regular school year, Pitcock says, and each class has two teachers.

"We're hoping that we're going to not only stem that summer learning loss and stop it, but we're going to actually accelerate learning so that they get into the best high schools (and) know the opportunities that exist for them in college."

Another focus, Pitcock says, is to get summer learning opportunities into the education-reform debate.

Details about summer learning loss and tips for prevention are online at SmarterSummers.org.

Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - IN